ATLANTA – Andy Roddick stood at the baseline, shaking his arm in between serves. This served as one of the first clues that something was not right with his dominant wing Sunday, as he faced Gilles Muller for the title of the BB&T Atlanta Open.
But not the first: That would have been the double faults, two of them in a row in the American’s opening service game to fall behind 0-2. Then again, maybe the first hint came in the game before that, where Roddick played peculiarly passive tennis as his Luxembourgish opponent served.
Not that it’s unusual to see Roddick play defensively; Muller, a 29-year-old who has never won a tour title, indeed hasn’t been in a final in seven years, seemed particularly vulnerable to overhitting in the early goings, explaining why Roddick was floating and slicing the ball rather than trying to unload on it. It’s a tactic that has worked well for him against lesser-ranked players easily overcome by the moment, but here his shots only floated to midcourt, allowing a nervous Muller to take charge and grab an early lead.
Soon Roddick’s woes mounted – he was hitting balls into the stands after dropping serve, protesting challenges that didn’t reveal the result he wanted and calling for the trainer. The shots had no power behind them – one of his serves was clocked at 88 mph – and Muller struck the contest’s first 10 winners. Roddick didn’t hit his first, a service ace, until his last service game of the set.
Meanwhile Muller, an aggressive lefty standing 6’4” whose spot serving compensates for Roddick’s usual pace advantage, had five aces, two forehand winners and was six of nine on net approaches. Even though Roddick finally got to see the trainer between sets, it was hardly guaranteed that it would be enough to revive the aging America – one month shy of 30 himself – and his chances.
He started by holding serve. Just enough pop had returned to his serving arm to increase his ace count and, though he was working far harder on serve than his opponent, there were no breaks through the second set. In fact, when Muller fought off four break points (and set points) at 5-6, it at first appeared he’d weathered Roddick’s storm: He’d lost just seven service points in set 2 to Roddick’s 13, after all.
In the tiebreak, though, he added two more at the worst of times, losing just his second net point of the set with a missed volley and adding a double fault to fall 7-2.
“I just hung in there, there was nothing else,” Roddick said later. “Gilles outplayed me for two sets, no question. I was just lucky to get through.”
As Roddick pointed out later in the press conference, this is how tennis differs from other sports; a pro football or basketball team that had so thoroughly dominated the first quarter could expect to still have a lead despite being slightly outplayed in the second.
“I know by now the score of a set is irrelevant,” he said. “7-6 or 6-1 it still counts the same.”
Going into set 3, despite Muller having a 39-18 advantage in winners, the match was suddenly even.
Except it wasn’t really; at that stage Roddick’s edge of 31 titles to his opponent’s zero was the margin that really mattered. The third set quickly played out as Roddick and the spectators probably envisioned it: The American’s variety on the service return, sometimes moving in, other times standing 15-20 feet behind the baseline on second serves, rattled his opponent, leading to more costly double faults and forehand errors. Roddick finally ripped a backhand pass to break for 3-1, his defensive strategy working, albeit two sets later than expected.
A season writ small
Roddick finished the third set with eight aces and no double faults. Muller had five of each, outacing the American 20-18 but finishing with 10 doubles for the match to Roddick’s four. The man from Leudelange surrendered a second break late in the third, and didn’t challenge his opponent’s serve thereafter. Despite crumbling 2-6 in set 3, Muller won 150 points, the same as Roddick, and there was no mystery in his mind as to why he had fallen short of his first title yet again.
“At the end of (the second) set I got very tight,” he said in his post-match press conference. “Maybe I lot the belief in myself to win that match.
“It was a long time since I was in a position to win a big tournament,” said the Luxembourgish player, whose last appearance in the final round of an ATP Tour event took place in Los Angeles in 2005.
For Roddick, this match’s slow start, enormous struggle and later successes could symbolize his entire 2012 season thus far: After losing 11 of his first 18 matches this year, Roddick played an extra week in Eastbourne prior to Wimbledon, winning the title and sparking a run. Despite falling to David Ferrer, an in-form No. 5 seed at Wimbledon, Roddick’s Atlanta triumph gives him wins in 11 of his last 12 outings.
And as he heads back to grass for the London Olympics starting July 28, Roddick says that his physical struggles in set 1 do not bode ill, saying that his arm merely “lacked strength” in the early goings, perhaps because of his late semifinal finish against compatriot John Isner, another match that went three sets.
The 6’9” Isner, it so happens, will be Roddick’s doubles partner in London.
“He’ll make me look really good at the net with that serve,” Roddick said. “I don’t think any of the seeded teams or any of the teams are going to be looking forward to playing us.”
He declined to say what specific advice he would have for the younger members of U.S. squad at the Olympics, including not only Isner but Ryan Harrison, 20, and Donald Young, 23. If they’re looking for tips, though, they can find them in how Roddick says he has reacted to each of his 32 singles wins.
“I’ve always appreciated it,” he said. “I never assumed I would win again. I just kind of go about the process of playing, and work hard, and know that I could put myself in the position enough times where you could kind of create some success for yourself.”